The island of Oahu is a popular destination in Hawaii, and with several distinct “regions” including Waikiki Beach, the North Shore, Ko Olina, and more, you might be wondering where you should stay in Oahu if you’re planning a trip. In this post, we’ll provide some insight into our favorite places, and also compare hotels versus Airbnb and other rental options.
For starters, Oahu is separated into 5 distinct regions: Honolulu, the Windward Coast, Central Oahu, the Leeward Coast and the North Shore. For tourist purposes, Honolulu is synonymous with Waikiki Beach, a world famous beachfront resort district on Oahu’s south shore. We have stayed in Honolulu, the Leeward Coast, and the North Shore. We’ve also spent time in Central Oahu and the Windward coast during our trips to Hawaii.
If you’re looking for a cheaper hotel option, you’re pretty much limited to Honolulu/Waikiki Beach. Our research has consistently shown this to be the area of Oahu with the most budget hotel options, and even those are not cheap–they’re just less expensive than other Oahu options.
Outside of Waikiki Beach, your hotel options are mostly resorts, almost all of which are expensive. This is in part because development is limited (and a very contentious issue) on other parts of Oahu, so the number of resorts is relatively low. Those that do get approved are almost exclusively higher end, and charge accordingly. The good news is that they also feature amenities consistent with luxury resorts, and have an ample amount of space for guests.
If money is no issue, the various resorts, particularly those that are organized into masterplanned resort districts, are the best option. While some of these can be a bit dated, they are by and large the nicest option in terms of where to stay, and offer a nice balance between the off-the-beaten path serenity of Hawaii and luxury amenities.
However, don’t let price dissuade you from one of the other regions of Oahu. On our most recent trip, we stayed at an Airbnb condo on the North Shore, which was on the ‘community’ side of the Turtle Bay Resort development. Our 2-bedroom condo was about twice the size of a standard room at the resort, at roughly half the cost.
In addition to the value of our accommodations, we also felt we had the best of both worlds in another way: we were a 5-minute walk from Turtle Bay Resort, where we enjoyed a couple of meals, but also had our own full kitchen and could prepare breakfast and other meals to save ourselves money. Options like our Airbnb condo rental are pretty common throughout Oahu, and something we’d highly recommend. (You can use our sign-up link for a $40 credit your first time using Airbnb!)
Now, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of the various regions of Oahu…
Waikiki Beach is a beachfront area of Honolulu, the largest city in Hawaii. With this comes certain pros and cons. Neither of us were particularly impressed with Waikiki. This is most definitely the most touristy part of Hawaii, and where you’ll find the longest stretches of shops and restaurants.
The beach is beautiful in Waikiki, but it’s also incredibly crowded and the whole area is overdeveloped. Unlike other parts of Hawaii, there is nothing serene about Waikiki. That bears emphasizing, because (in my opinion) one of Hawaii’s greatest strengths is its laid back, island vibe. You won’t find that in Waikiki, which is the ocean side of a major metropolis.
Although I wouldn’t say anywhere in Hawaii is really a “party” scene (this is not Cancun or Daytona Beach–it’s not a place most college students can afford to go for spring break…although James Franco probably can afford it, so watch out for him!), Waikiki Beach comes closest to that. This is not necessarily a value judgment; to the contrary, if you want somewhere on Oahu with nightlife, Waikiki is pretty much your only option.
During our visit to Waikiki, we stayed at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa. This was a nice hotel with a great location (pictured above is the view from our room), and we’d definitely recommend it if you’re dead-set on Waikiki Beach and want somewhere a modern, mid-grade option. We stayed on points, but rooms are routinely under $300/night here. By Waikiki standards, this isn’t too bad: cheaper than dedicated resort options but more expensive than budget hotels.
We have no desire to stay in Waikiki again, but part of that might just be us. While we have nothing against touristy experiences, we prefer to cherry-pick those as we see fit, and still try to minimize our exposure to crowds and all that entails. When staying at a hotel in Waikiki Beach, the entire trip is pretty much one big touristy experience.
This is not to say that Waikiki is without its upsides. To the contrary, it holds a lot of allure for many visitors. Aside from the aforementioned nightlife, the denser nature of Waikiki means you’ll find much more to do here. It’s pretty much the only location to stay on Oahu without a rental car (and you probably will not want one given parking fees at the hotels), and even if you want to visit a place like Pearl Harbor, Paradise Cove, or one of the other points of interest, you can usually find cheap shuttle options.
The Leeward Coast is on the coastal side of the Waianae Mountain Range, and is a stark contrast from Waikiki, which is about 30 minutes away. Whereas Waikiki feels overdeveloped and crowded with people, the Leeward Coast has a lot of wide open space and has a sense of undeveloped natural beauty with the mountainous backdrop.
With Waikiki being crowded and touristy and word having gotten out about the North Shore after over a decade of travel guides hyping it up as Oahu’s hidden gem and surf mecca, I think the Leeward Coast has become the off-the-beaten path, “local” side of Hawaii. Comparatively few visitors go to the Leeward Coast, which has a small fraction of the hotels as Waikiki and nowhere near the name cachet of the North Shore.
Perhaps it’s just because this is my favorite part of Oahu, but I feel like this is the up-and-coming side of the island for tourists. The Ko Olina Resort district is beautifully masterplanned, and features a lot of space for two of Hawaii’s flagship resorts: Disney’s Aulani Resort & Spa and the new Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina. These are two pretty big names that have added their lavish resorts to the Leeward Coast in the last ~5 years.
If your budget allows staying at one of these resorts–or you’re able to find a vacation rental in the area–you won’t be disappointed. Not only are the resorts incredibly posh, but the area allows easy access to the natural side of Hawaii and a number of local points of interest.
The North Shore
As a child, I remember attending some surfing competition (as a viewer–I don’t have the coordination to surf) on Oahu’s North Shore. Even then, there was a ton of buzz about how this was Hawaii’s hidden gem that more and more tourists were starting to discover.
Flash forward over a decade later, and we finally stayed on the North Shore, which is still being advertised as a hidden gem. At this point, I think it’s really difficult to call it that with a straight face, unless you don’t know what the word “hidden” means. Sure, relative to Waikiki, the North Shore is not nearly as popular.
Nowadays, the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau estimates that more than half of Hawaii’s 7 million visitors visit the North Shore at some time during their trip. Most are not staying in the North Shore, as the area is still fairly underdeveloped.
In fact, this is quite a contentious issue for locals. Driving to our condo rental on the North Shore, we saw numerous politically-charged signs about development, most of which advocated for preserving its local character and charm and against the construction of luxury hotel or condo projects.
Right now, it seems like the anti-development crowd is winning. Despite the high number of visitors, the number of hotels and resorts on the North Shore remains surprisingly low. With demand far outweighing supply, this means you can expect high prices from the resorts that are located on the North Shore. (As such, this is probably the place where doing Airbnb or another vacation rental makes the most sense.)
As a cultural outsider, I cannot comment on the politics of this all. What I can comment on is the ratio of infrastructure to tourist use. The restaurants, shops, beaches, and roads are all crowded. Traffic moved at a snail’s pace through ‘quiet’ towns, and every restaurant we went to in the area (outside of Turtle Bay Resort) had a line to be seated. That’s the biggest downside to the North Shore from a visitor perspective.
The upside is that in resisting development, the North Shore has the natural and local vibe that I appreciate about other parts of the island, despite attendance numbers that are beginning to rival Waikiki. (I suspect if unfettered hotel development were allowed, it’d look a lot more like Waikiki.) Moreover, these are some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and the under-the-radar ones are not crowded at all.
Perhaps most importantly, the North Shore’s reputation as a surf mecca is well-deserved. If you enjoy surfing or watching surfing, you really cannot go wrong with the North Shore.
The locations we have not stayed are the Windward Coast and Central Oahu. Part of that could be because I cannot locate any hotels in Central Oahu, and only 2 that are available for booking in the Windward Coast.
Central Oahu is probably not a hot-spot for hotel development because not many people go to Hawaii clamoring for good places to stay in locations that are inland. Still, there are a couple of cities with regional areas here, so you might be able to score a cheaper Airbnb rental in Central Oahu.
If you’re not going to spend much time in your room, this might present good value. Not only do you have cheaper prices, but you have a centralized location that would make it easy to access pretty much every other region. (The town of Mililani looks like a particularly convenient location.)
The Windward Coast would seem to have more going for it, especially with a couple of bays that would be conducive to resort development. It appears there might also be a couple of bed & breakfasts in this area, and it undoubtedly has rental availability.
Unlike the North Shore, which has a growing reputation as being a chic place, Windward Coast doesn’t have the same name cachet. That might mean cheaper prices…or it might mean less to do. It seems relatively convenient to Honolulu, depending upon where you stay. I’d certainly consider it if Airbnb prices were considerably cheaper than the North Shore.
Hopefully that gives you an idea of how the different regions of Oahu, Hawaii vary, and helps you choose the right place to stay for your trip. My personal favorites are the Leeward Coast and North Shore, whereas I don’t really care for Waikiki, but again, that’s personal. Waikiki is the most popular place in Oahu by a wide margin, so obviously millions of visitors disagree with me. (Las Vegas is another place that’s incredibly popular, but doesn’t interest me in the least, so your mileage may vary.)
If you’re planning a visit to the Big Island or Oahu, please check out my other posts about Hawaii for ideas of things to do. There are a ton of incredible, under-the-radar experiences in Hawaii, and I highly recommend the Oahu Revealed Guide. It’s written by a Hawaii resident, and is far better than other books we’ve read.
Have you been to Oahu, Hawaii? If so, where did you stay? Did you like the hotel and ‘region’ of Oahu, or would you stay somewhere else next time? Any other tips for choosing accommodations on Oahu? Please feel free to ask any questions you might have or share additional thoughts in the comments!